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Journal of Forensic Anthropology di Luca, et.

al, J Forensic Anthropol 2016, 1:1

Case Report Open access

Study of Skeletal Remains: Solving a Homicide Case with Forensic


Anthropology and Review of the Literature
Laura Donato1, Alessandro di Luca2*, Carla Vecchiotti1 and Luigi Cipolloni1
1Department of Anatomical, Histological, Forensic and Orthopaedic Sciences, University of Rome Sapienza, Viale Regina Elena 336, 00161 Rome, Italy
2Department of Public Health, University “SacroCuore” of Rome, Largo F. Vito 1, 00168 Rome, Italy
*Corresponding author: Alessandro di Luca, Department of Public Health, University “SacroCuore” of Rome, Largo F. Vito 1, 00168 Rome, Italy, Tel: +39/3338649213;
E-mail: Aless.diluca@libero.it
Received date: June 8, 2016, Accepted date: June 20, 2016, Published date: June 30, 2016
Copyright: © 2016 Laura D, et al. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted
use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.

Abstract

The present study examines a case in which signs of incised wounds were found on skeletal remains of a murder
victim. The authors have studied the skeletal remains and the dynamics of the murder in order to reconstruct the
kind of weapon utilized. The bones examined belonged to a woman that had disappeared from almost 10 years and
where recovered from the garden of the house belonging to her former partner. The main feature of these remains
was the discovery of a damage of a thoracic vertebra (T1). Our examination has the objective to enhance the
macroscopic analysis of the skeletal remains in order to deduce information about the classification of specific
damages and the dynamics that have caused them and the identification of the weapon that had been used. Highly
decomposed bodies, as in skeletal remains, having poor or absent biological tissue on it, challenge the operator to
classify the exact nature of the damage, and in some cases, it does not allow achieving a significant level of
certainty. In order to solve this critical situation, Forensic Anthropology may contribute greatly by supplying a great
amount of information that would not be deciphered otherwise. The bone, main study object of the Forensic
Anthropology, may also register, as the soft tissues, the features of the damaging pattern. The opportunity to
extrapolate this kind of data, allows analysing the dynamics and the nature of the kind of weapon used. In certain
cases the incised bone present also features that allow to identify the exact structure of the weapon: of course, not
every wound damages the bone, but when this actually happens, the morphological appearance of the instrument
utilized remains crystallized in time, excluding of course the cases in which the bones are destroyed. Many other
studies, concerning the characterization of lesions due to sharp objects, have been done and a review of related
literature has been included in this article. The major goal of the authors is to highlight the importance of the
information that can be extrapolated: the usefulness of the classification of the weapons used to provoke the lesion,
could reach a more accurate evaluation in order to significantly help in case of forensic assessment.

Keywords: Forensic anthropology; Homicide; Bones, Cold case; Stab signs of any trauma or lesion and, furthermore, they keep the shape of
wound the item that causes it.

Introduction The Case


When the object of forensic investigation is constituted by skeletal In March 2001, in Rome, a woman went missing, and although
remains, obtaining information is more difficult because of the absence extensive police investigation where performed, it was not possible to
of soft tissues. The source of information is represented by bones only. trace her. Her partner was questioned but the case was closed without
Certainly there are some missing tiles that can't be regained: many achieving satisfactory results. In the subsequent years the case was
lesions or trauma that involves soft tissues don’t involve bones and this opened once more by impulse of the "Cold Case" Unit of the Public
is why the pathologist is the only one that can suggest the cause of Prosecutor's Office of Rome, and the investigations where focused on
death. The most important information is obtained by the study of the partner of the victim, who was known to have a sentimental
lesions, and what kind of object caused it. A forensic anthropologist relation with the woman at the time where she disappeared. The man
can state that there are some potentially fatal lesions. Yet, without soft was questioned by the police and confessed that the woman had died
tissues, it is not possible to gain certainty about the presence of other the same day of her disappearance, indicating the place where he had
lesions, not involving bones that could have caused the death. buried the corpse. This first dig uncovered only the bones of several
small animals, so the man was questioned once again, and finally
Whereas there are some objective limits in a forensic
confessed that the woman had died in his own home after a fight, when
anthropological analysis, the item of its study provides interesting
he had hit the victim causing her to lose balance, fall, and hit with the
features that can be useful in a forensic contest. Strong tissues, made of
head a fireplace made of crude stone. The man also confessed that he
organic and inorganic components, which involve a particular
had buried the woman's body in his own garden. This new dig,
resistance and hardness, constitute bones. When this kind of tissues is
performed in 2009, allowed the retrieval of the bones of the deceased
involved it is functional to extrapolate the maximum information from
woman that where partially buried under a concrete wall, built during
the only present element. It does not matter if the soft tissues are
the past few years, delimiting the man's propriety. The body was still
absent or if the crime scene had been contaminated, bones keep the

J Forensic Anthropol, an open access journal Volume 1 • Issue 1 • 1000105


Citation: Donato L, di Luca, Vecchiotti C, Cipolloni L (2016) Study of Skeletal Remains: Solving a Homicide Case with Forensic Anthropology
and Review of the Literature. J Forensic Anthropol 1: 105.

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contained in the remains of the clothes that she was wearing at the the grave soil. Its pressure avoided the infiltration of soil components
time of her death. The bones where cautiously collected and brought to in the lesion, hence, the modification of the bone colour [1].
the Department of Legal Medicine in Rome for further investigations
and analysis.

Results
As confirmed by the partner of the victim, the remains were located
in the garden outside his house. In order to allow the retrieval, it was
necessary to remove a layer of cement covering the “grave” soil. The
mechanical means employed provoked the partial fragmentation of the
skeletal remains, particularly the skull, and maxillary and zygomatic
bone (Figure 1). After removing the cement layer, the excavation was
carried on through proper means, following the forensic
anthropological guidelines, in order to recover skeletal remains. The
“grave” soil was removed using brushes to avoid damage the human
remains, to observe the disposition of bones and to recover all of the
part of the skeleton present inside the grave. Most of the skeletal Figure 2: Vertebral body with incised surface on the lower right
elements where retrieved, except for bones of hands and feet. The region of the body.
absence of these parts was due to previous construction and
maintenance work processed near the burial site in the previous years.
The skeletal elements where processed through forensic
anthropological examination. Once identified the human morphology
of these elements, through macroscopic inspection, further
examination have been carried on in order to determine sex, age at
death, stature and all pertinent features useful for the identification of
the victim.
In order to facilitate the examination, the bones have been cleaned,
put in anatomical order, and photographed: this allowed to state that
the skeletal elements and their number belonged to a single individual
(Figure 3). No fragmentation was detected, with the exception of the
skull: it was hardly damaged because of the action of mechanical
means employed to remove the soil and cement layers covering the
skeletal remains (Figure 1). The fragmented skull allowed detecting
Caucasoid traits. Useful feature for sex determination were
appreciable: the shape of the maxillary bones and the supraorbital
Figure 1: Anterior view of the skull with fragmented surface related ridge were peculiar to a female. This information was added to the
to orbital and zygomatic bones. study of the pelvis: the presence of the ventral arch, the shape of the
greater sciatic notch and the pelvic girdle were all significant elements
confirming the diagnosis of female character.
An accurate study of every bone was performed in order to search
eventual signs of lesion. A lesion at the level of the body of a thoracic
vertebra was detected, with a small fragment still in place. When the
fragment was removed, the surface of the vertebral body was clear and
its colour differed from the rest of the bone element (Figure 2).
The lesion has been chronologically identified as peri-mortem since,
at the moment of the medico-legal investigation, it was covered by a
slice of bone that was cautiously removed during the study of the bone,
showing a different colour compared to the rest of the vertebra. The
chromatic difference was caused by the slice of the cut bone still
sticking on the bony surface thanks to presence of the soft tissues and,
after decomposition, to the pressure of the soil. The lesion showed a Figure 3: Post-cranial skeletal elements: bones of hands and feet
lighter colour: the colour of the bone surface depends on the have not been found during the recovery.
environment in which the skeletal elements are preserved. Part of the
components of the soil is absorbed by the surface of the bones,
homogeneously modifying their colour. In this case, the lesion was The absence of fragmentation of the post-cranial elements allowed
classified as peri-mortem since the presence of a chromatic difference observation of the level of maturation of bones in order to perform the
between the external surface and the lesion’s surface colour. This evaluation of the age at death: long bone have completed their process
difference was due to the gradually replacement of the soft tissues by of formation and reached their final shape, indicating a minimum age
limit of 20-22 years. The topography of the auricular surface showed

J Forensic Anthropol, an open access journal Volume 1 • Issue 1 • 1000105


Citation: Donato L, di Luca, Vecchiotti C, Cipolloni L (2016) Study of Skeletal Remains: Solving a Homicide Case with Forensic Anthropology
and Review of the Literature. J Forensic Anthropol 1: 105.

Page 3 of 6

the characteristic irregularities related to a transition between phase 7 This discovery allowed to confirm a first-degree murder accusation,
and phase 8, referred to an age between 50 and 60 years [2]. The level and not, as previously stated by the murderer of an accidental death.
of modification of pubic symphysis was compatible with phase 10, The man was brought to trial and condemned due to the evidence
which is more than 50 years. These evaluations agree to a diagnosis of found during the investigations.
age at death between 50 and 60 years [3].
In order to identify the kind of tool used to provoke the lesion, it
The stature was estimated measuring femur and applying the was been necessary to review all the methods that have been employed
equation proposed by Trotter [4]: 2.47 x 38 (femur length) in this kind of case files and to choose the most suitable to the actual
+54.10=147.96 cm ± 3.72 case. The characteristics of a sharp tool are in fixed on the hard tissue,
such as bone, and allow detecting its original shape, striations and the
No markers related to occupational stress was found, only an initial
angle of impact [5]. The major goal of this study is to obtain the most
phase of osteoarthritis observed on the bodies of two thoracic
possible accurate characterization of the murder weapon. An
vertebrae.
interesting aspect is how the shape of the lesion can give information
The examination of the bones allowed detection of evidence of about the dynamic of the injury: the direction of the blow, either if it
previous healed lesions. was dealt perpendicularly or not, leaves a distinguishable mark. Many
papers have been issued about 3D digital microscope to utilized to gain
The chromatic homogeneity of the fracture edges of the mandible
a three dimensional rendering of the analysed sample, that allow to
and its surface gave relevant information about the timing this lesion,
measure and observe the characteristic striation left by particular kind
presuming it to correspond to the moment of death (Figure 4).
of tools [5,6]. Using these techniques it is possible to evaluate the shape
Substantial difference was observed between the vertebral lesion and
and direction of the wound and also the height from which the knife
the mandibular fracture. The vertebral lesion showed chromatic
was handled [5].
difference because of the presence of the bone layer covering the cut
surface still sticking thanks to the presence of the soft tissues and of the Complementarily to this research, a qualitative analysis was realized
soil’s pressure. The chromatic homogeneity between mandibular using a technique based on the employment of the SEM/EDS method.
surface and its fracture edges, confirmed that the fracture was The characteristic of SEM is to allow a detailed vision of the surface of
compound at the moment of the burial. The internal part of the the sample, while the EDS technique consent to detect different
mandibular bone was exposed, allowing the soil to be absorbed. elements of the lesion, that have been left by the tool used to provoke
the injury: the postulate is that bone, metal and organic material
The forensic anthropological examination was fundamental to
respond with a different brightness related to a gray scale. Metallic
detect the suspect of identity. The results about age at death, sex and
elements detected on the surface could be linked to the weapon used
stature were compatible with the biological profile of the missing
and could be deeply useful to supply peculiar data to accurately detect
woman. In order to confirm the identity the victim a DNA test was
the object. Although EDS could deliver results with a strong probative
performed and confirmed the identification of a 54 years old woman
value, it is subject to a detection limit that hinders it to deeply
thanks to the genetic compatibility between her bones and her relative’s
discriminate different type of steel [7,8].
genetic samples.
In some cases, the reliability of the Discriminant Function Analysis
was evaluated for the differentiation of metal edges. The starting point
is to realize the impression of the cut marks using a silicone based
dental impression in order to observe it with a microscope and rebuild
its 3D volume by scan [9].
It is also possible to distinguish the kind of sharp tool used to
provoke the injury: for example, the lesion may be compared to the
wound due to the action of a saw. In this particular case, the lesion
would show a particularly different aspect, characterized by multiple
cutting edges: in the analyzed case file, the edges of the wound where
well defined and allow recognizing a single stab wound [10-14].
Figure 4: Mandible with fragmentation of the left ramus. In order to evaluate the accuracy of identification of different kinds
of lesions, incisions and other marks due to particular tools, analysis
like blind or comparative tests have been realized employing SEM,
Micro CT-scan and Epifluorescence Macroscopy [15-18]. In particular,
Discussion Epifluorescence Macroscopy supplied accurate information
In the exposed case the medico legal and forensic anthropological characterizing different kinds of tools and providing high resolution
analysis allowed the highlight of a vertebral and mandibular lesion, data with non-destructive three dimensional visualization of the
classifying them as vital. sample [18,19]. Concurrently, the acquisition of a three dimensional
shape of a lesion employing the 3D Optical Digitalizer had performed
Particularly the lesion of the vertebral body permitted to state that it better results about measurement efficiency, with an error rate of 0.05
might have been provoked by the action of a blade. This permitted to mm, and speed than SEM and CT systems. This technique, allows
reconstruct the dynamic of the homicide, attributing the death to an performing 3D image acquisition with particular accuracy in terms of
incised wound. Said wound damaged the vascular and nervous soft tissue lesions [18].
structure of the neck through the impact of the blade on the vertebral
body. Other variables have been considered useful to a correct
identification of the tool: the resistance due to the presence of cloths

J Forensic Anthropol, an open access journal Volume 1 • Issue 1 • 1000105


Citation: Donato L, di Luca, Vecchiotti C, Cipolloni L (2016) Study of Skeletal Remains: Solving a Homicide Case with Forensic Anthropology
and Review of the Literature. J Forensic Anthropol 1: 105.

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had been object of studies. The presence of an outfit, as well as type of weapon as a marine survival knife with a serrated blunt edge: the shape
tool and anatomical location of the lesion, has a considerable effect in and defects of the blade were compatible with the lesions [22].
reduce the magnitude of penetrating forces [20].
Bone remains are often considered the most difficult and
SEM/EDS method had been used to evaluate the correspondence challenging to be investigated: since the complexity of the case
between the observed injury and the presumed weapon: three different increases as more time passes since the moment of the death. It is
cases had been analysed in Netherlands. During the examination of important not to undervalue the available data: even if the only
skeletal remains, the morphology of a lesion had been misinterpreted information is a photograph, some data could still be extrapolated. In
as a gunshot injury because of its features: circular wound with this case, the features of the vertebral body (Figure 4) allow making a
diameter of 15-19mm, attributable to large calibre ammunition. The discrimination of the type of tool used and the dynamic of the blow.
employment of SEM/EDS allowed finding no gunshot residues on the The first step was about to compare this kind of lesion to the wound
bone surface: it highlighted the presence of other elements, provoked by different classes of tools. Three classes have been
corresponding to the chemical composition of a metal rod found near considered: saw hatchet and knife.
the skeletal remains, related to a bicycle lock. In case of injuries due to
The first class describes a lesion provoked by the action of a saw is
knife action, particles of the tool can remain on the involved surface
characterized by particularly diagnostic feature: multiple cutting edges,
due of the impact: these elements can be distinguished through the
nearly parallel one to each other are due to the several passage of the
support of the SEM/EDS [7].
numerous teeth of the saw. In this case there are no signs of multiple
The employment of X-ray examination on skeletal remains could be cutting edges [9]. Moreover, it is quite impossible that this kind of tool
a useful support for the diagnosis of murder. In spring 1994 skeletal could damage just one vertebral body, considering that the incision in
remains have been recovered in a Danish forest. Most of the bones tangent to the body and not perpendicular: a saw would probably
showed incisions: cervical column (the left transversal process of a injure other nearby bone element [23].
cervical vertebra body), sternum (two incisions, one perforating the
The second class is constituted by the lesions occurring in case of a
manubrium and the other located at the distal part of the sternum),
wound due to the action of a hatchet. A considerable number of
iliac crest (perforating lesion), ribs (six ribs were incised, two of which
damages can be produced: the impact site is characterized by possible
were perforated), right tibia (proximal region showed two superficial
bisection of the bone, the development of fractures, irregular edges of
wounds). Pelvic girdle and skull revealed male characteristics and the
the lesion [13]. The sample under consideration displays regular edges,
stature was estimated by measuring homerus and femur (170 cm). The
no fractures developing from the impact site or cracking of the
skeletal elements were exposed to X-ray examination: no age-related
vertebral body. As explained about saw lesion, it is nearly unfeasible for
degenerative changes were found but the lesions on ribs and iliac crest
this kind of object to provoke this kind of incision without damaging
where highlighted. These skeletonized remains of a male of 25-30 years
other bones, because of the angle of impact.
where identified with a disappeared 28-years Iranian man with height
of 171 cm. The autopsy declared that he was stabbed to death. In this The shape of the incision under examination has been considered to
case the X-ray examination allowed observing the incisions on the be more compatible with the third class of possible weapon: that is a
skeletal elements in order to identify the possible tool that provoked lesion due to the action of a knife. A huge amount of different blades
them [21]. are accessible in the free market, as well as a great amount of other
similar objects capable of killing, and their similarities make the
It is possible to recognize the type of tool responsible for an incision
difficult to distinguish one from the other just by the study of the
also when this is located on ribs cartilage. 21 years old was stabbed in
incision (Figure 5). Anyway it is possible to discriminate two kinds of
the chest, the abdomen and in the back: the lesions showed sharp and
knife: serrated and non-serrated. Both these weapons deal linear and
blunt corner and sharp margins with depth of 0.5 to 10 cm. Several
superficial incisions but there are peculiar features that can help to
lesions were located on the costal cartilage and their surface showed
distinguish between them.
evident striae due to the irregularity of the cutting edge. The shape of
some lesions was linked to a curved abrasion located on the skin: this
pattern highlighted the evidence of a particular shape between the
blade and the grip. This information, in addiction to wounds shape
related to a serrated blade, helped to identify and recover the item. All
these lesions, particularly on cartilage, were observed with naked eye
and by examination under polarized light microscope with low
magnification. A dental impression medium was employed to
reproduce the superficial structure of the lesion in order to perform
direct comparison between knife standards and the surface of the
wounded cartilage. To compare the reproduced surface, a standard
knife cut impression was reproduced, by experimentally stabbing the
knife in a brand of cellulose acetate butyrate. Differences between
Figure 5: T1 and T2: the lesion is evident on C7, whereas the body
classes of objects are related to class and individual characteristics.
of T1 shows no incised surface.
Class characteristics refer to repetitive structural details on the surface.
Individual characteristics depend on individual use. Defects on the
cutting edge are generally well identified on bone: however, the
Serrated blades cause deeper and larger lesions to the bone surface
cartilage could record finer details. In this case, all these exams
and cause the production of fragments.
highlighting the stab wound characteristics allowed to identify the

J Forensic Anthropol, an open access journal Volume 1 • Issue 1 • 1000105


Citation: Donato L, di Luca, Vecchiotti C, Cipolloni L (2016) Study of Skeletal Remains: Solving a Homicide Case with Forensic Anthropology
and Review of the Literature. J Forensic Anthropol 1: 105.

Page 5 of 6

Non serrated blade lesions are more superficial and no bone It isn't always possible to perform particular kind of analysis, as
fragments are produced. The effect of this blade is to slice the surface of SEM-EDS for example, because of availability and cost of the means.
the bone: this was compatible with the effect showed by the lesion of Performing a naked eye examination it is also achievable to collect
the examined vertebral body, characterized by a superficial incision important information: the localization of the anatomical district
due to the slicing effect of a blade. A non-serrated blade has been showing the lesion could suggest an approximated dynamic of the
considered suitable for the kind of analysed incision [24]. blow and the macroscopic shape of the incision can be linked to a
particular kind of impact [27,28].
The weapon involved in the injury was provided of a sharp blade,
this is deducible because of the shape of the lesion and its well defined The description of the wound has to consider nearby the skeletal
edges. elements: fractures expanding from the point of impact or close faint
incisions are patterns that can increase the explicative value of the
There are two different hypotheses about the size of the blade:
principal wound [29-32]. The level of involvement of the nearby
The width of the incision corresponds to the blade's width: this anatomic elements, the importance and the configuration of the lesion
means that it wasn't larger than 1 cm otherwise it would have marked differentiate the weapon. Once the class of the weapon has been found,
and incised the nearby vertebral bodies. a more elaborated and accurate description can be realized making use
of a polarized light microscope: the edges of an incision, their shape
The blade had a width greater than 1 cm: the incision had been
and size represent the negative imprint of a blade. Microscopically
provoked by the blow involving only the inferior edge of the blade.
observing the pattern of the wound can supply peculiar details of the
In order to reconstruct the dynamic of the action it is necessary to tool, due to imperfections of the blade or particular shape: this
detect: information, in addiction to measurements of depth and width,
collimate to describe the detected tool as accurately as possible. When
The anatomical position of the bone,
skeletal elements conditions allow to perform these kind of analysis, a
The shape of the incision, forensic anthropologist can obtain information that need to be
submitted to the medico-legal evaluation in order to eventually
Other incisions on nearby bones,
diagnose the cause of death.
The incision is located on the left side of a thoracic vertebral body
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J Forensic Anthropol, an open access journal Volume 1 • Issue 1 • 1000105


Citation: Donato L, di Luca, Vecchiotti C, Cipolloni L (2016) Study of Skeletal Remains: Solving a Homicide Case with Forensic Anthropology
and Review of the Literature. J Forensic Anthropol 1: 105.

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